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Saturday, June 09, 2018

Warriors Sweep Cavaliers and Earn Third Title in Four Years With 108-85 Win

Stephen Curry scored 37 points and Kevin Durant added 20 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and a game-high 10 assists as the Golden State Warriors broke Cleveland's spirit with a 108-85 victory that was not as close as the final score might indicate. Durant started his Finals career by scoring at least 25 points in 13 straight games (the third longest such run in history, trailing only Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal); in game four, he snapped that scoring streak but he notched his first career Finals triple double.

Durant averaged 28.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 7.5 apg versus Cleveland to clinch his second straight Finals MVP, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan in the elite group of players who have won at least four scoring titles and at least two championships. Durant edged Curry 7-4 in the MVP balloting. Durant had a staggering +30 plus/minus number in game four, nine points better than any other player.

Curry shot 12-27 from the field, including 7-15 from three point range. He also had six rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocked shots. Golden State's only other double figure scorers were Andre Iguodala (11 points in 23 minutes off of the bench, +11 plus/minus number) and Klay Thompson (10 points, six rebounds). McGee had a tremendous impact that demonstrates the limits of relying on individual statistics to evaluate players: he had six points, three rebounds and one blocked shot in 16 minutes, yet the Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by 21 points when he was on the court, two points better than Curry's plus/minus number. No "stat guru" can account for what McGee did; the only way to understand McGee's effectiveness is to apply the "eye test" with understanding and realize the ways that his presence in the paint at both ends of the court provided a huge spark.

Golden State accomplished the first Finals sweep since the San Antonio Spurs swept LeBron James' Cavaliers in 2007. James joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson as the only Pantheon-level players who have been swept twice on the sport's biggest stage--but Abdul-Jabbar went 6-4 in the Finals and Johnson went 5-4 in the Finals, while James is 3-6; James is the only regular season MVP winner who has lost six times in the Finals.

James led the Cavaliers with 23 points and eight assists in addition to grabbing seven rebounds but--as is too often the case--his numbers were empty and his impact was far less than the box score might suggest. ABC's Mark Jackson picked up on this during the game, as cameras captured James speaking emphatically to his teammates during a third quarter timeout after the Warriors took a 67-52 lead: Jackson dismissed the significance of James' display and said, "It's about inspiring the guys in between these lines and he has not done it tonight." Moments later, the Warriors extended the margin to 81-63 and Jackson compared the Cavaliers to boxer Roberto Duran, who famously quit against Sugar Ray Leonard by stating "No mas." Jackson said, "It's disappointing. James' effort has been disappointing." Mike Breen made some excuses for James by stating that James carries a huge load and has only seemed tired a few times during the playoffs but Jeff Van Gundy retorted that it is OK to speak the truth about James, citing specific plays that had nothing to do with fatigue but rather showed that James was not competing hard enough.

Later, Jackson and Van Gundy also stated that James deserves credit for taking this team to the Finals in his 15th season. That is the paradox that has been a recurring theme in James' career: he is one of the greatest players ever, he has done some unprecedented things and what he did this season ranks among his greatest achievements--but he has also repeatedly quit in key moments. I have said it before and it bears repeating now: James mystifies me more than any other great NBA player who I have ever seen or researched.

Kevin Love added 13 points and nine rebounds. The only other Cleveland players who scored in double figures were J.R. Smith and Rodney Hood (10 points each). The Cavaliers shot just .345 from the field, which is a testament to Golden State's defense but also an indictment of how lethargically Cleveland played.

Stephen A. Smith is hardly known as a voice of reason but he nailed it when he called the Cavaliers' effort--starting with James and trickling down to the rest of the roster--"deplorable." 

However, James' pre-game lament that he needs to be surrounded by smart, high-IQ players rings hollow. The Cavaliers have spent a record amount of money to sign James' guys, including overpaying Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith (the Cavaliers bid against themselves in both instances because James wanted those players). The Cavaliers replaced a GM and a coach to appease James. Meanwhile, James still will not commit to returning to a franchise that has done everything possible to please him and that has put together a good enough roster to reach the Finals for four straight years.

It takes a unique supporting cast to play with James; James insists on monopolizing the ball, so he can only play with stars who are willing to accept this: Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love accepted this to at least some extent, while Kyrie Irving did not. James wants to be surrounded by guys who can make three pointers, play defense and not get in the way of him amassing huge statistics. He is not going to take a pay cut to win a title and any team other than Cleveland that signs him will have to (1) give up a lot of assets in a sign and trade (so that James can get the max deal that he will insist on getting) and (2) be willing to pay out a record amount in salaries/luxury tax with no assurance on a year to year basis of whether or not James is committed to staying with the team. James is a great player and there is no doubt that many teams will line up for the opportunity to sign James--and there is no doubt that along with the benefits of signing James there is also a huge price (literally and figuratively) to pay.

The media narrative that has been drummed into everyone's heads is that James is a superhero who is playing alongside a bunch of stooges--as if James could singlehandedly beat strong Toronto and Boston teams. Kobe Bryant, who knows a lot about what it takes to win championships--not to mention what it takes to win championships with less than stellar supporting casts, as he did in 2009 and 2010--does not buy that narrative at all:

"It seems like he has some good talent (around him) to me. He's got Korver, who's a great shooter, J.R. Smith who has always been a solid player. We focus on his one mistake and that tends to overshadow all the things he' s done to help them win a championship before. You've got Kevin Love, who was an All-Star and an Olympian; Rodney Hood, who was a 17-point scorer in the Western Conference; you've got Tristan who is back to playing like he played a few years ago."

Bryant disagrees with those who seem to think that it is necessary to denigrate James' teammates in order to elevate James' reputation: "He's got some workable pieces there. I don't understand how, in order to talk about how great LeBron is, we need to [crap] on everybody else. That's not OK. Those guys have talent. I don't buy this whole thing that he's playing with a bunch of garbage."

It seems pointless to provide a detailed recap of a game during which James and the Cavaliers clearly gave up. Cleveland fell down 10-3 at the start, rallied to take a 39-38 second quarter lead but trailed 61-52 at halftime. Then, Golden State pushed a little harder in the third quarter and Cleveland capitulated.

It is disappointing but not surprising that immediately after the loss at least one prominent media member tried to make excuses for James, who apparently suffered a right hand injury from punching a blackboard in the wake of Cleveland's game one loss. ESPN's Brian Windhorst mentioned James' injury shortly after game four ended, claiming that the swelling in James' hand is so bad that it is not yet possible to determine if the hand is broken. Windhorst hastened to add that James is not the one who revealed the injury now to get sympathy or makes excuses but rather James had been concealing the injury so as to not give the Warriors any edge. It is not clear how Windhorst suddenly found out about the secret if James is not the one who revealed the injury to him.

In any case, one would hope that James would not expect sympathy for an injury apparently suffered as a result of an immature outburst. James has a responsibility to not engage in reckless conduct that would potentially inhibit his ability to work for his employer (much like a baseball pitcher should not punch a wall with his pitching hand and then miss several starts as a result).

It is interesting that of all of the media members who cover the Finals only Windhorst--who has made a career out of being Boswell to James' Johnson--knew that James is injured (Windhorst also added as an afterthought that James' ankle is injured). I thought that teams and players have a responsibility to the league to fully and accurately report injuries (this will be even more important of an issue as legalized gambling becomes more widespread in the wake of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision about that matter).

James showed up at the game four post-game press conference with a huge brace/cast on his right hand. It would seem logical to assume that if James did not medically need such protection in the first three post-game press conferences, then it is likely that he did not need to wear it in the game four post-game press conference.

Long-time James' watchers no doubt remember that on the previous occasions when James quit he supposedly had mysterious injuries that seemingly only Windhorst knew the details about--injuries that oddly did not seem to require much if any treatment after Cleveland's season ended. I certainly will not forget James shooting half court shots during pre-game warmups when he was supposed to be nursing an elbow injury during the 2010 playoffs.

James has earned the right to sign with any team that he prefers--but, by the same token, it is fair to evaluate his decisions and actions in an objective context, as opposed to filtering them through a particular lens the way that some media members who value access to James do. 

That is more than enough words to devote to the best player on the losing team. James will drag out his free agency process for the next few weeks but the Golden State Warriors deserve the bulk of our attention.

The Warriors are a complete team. They do not play "small ball" or "stat guru" ball; they defend, they share the ball on offense and their stars are selfless. As Pat Riley might put it, there are no "smiling faces with hidden agendas" and there is no "disease of me." The Warriors do not care who gets the credit or the accolades. I hate the way that Durant fled a contending Oklahoma City team to join a powerful team that had already won a title but Durant had the right to do this and he has played brilliantly as a Warrior. Stephen Curry is a wondrous shooter who is also an underrated passer, rebounder and defender--yes, defender: he is smart and quick, even though he can be overpowered at times; teams pick on him at that end not because he is so bad but rather because every other Golden State starter is even better defensively than he is.

Could the Warriors beat Russell's Celtics, the Magic-Kareem Lakers, the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics, the Jordan-Pippen Bulls or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers? Tell me the playing conditions and rules and maybe I can provide a sensible answer. As Chauncey Billups said after the Warriors won last night, with three championships in four years the Warriors have earned the right to be in the conversation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM


Thursday, June 07, 2018

Kevin Durant Leads the Way as Golden State Takes a Commanding 3-0 Lead Over Cleveland

Kevin Durant scored a playoff career-high 43 points as his Golden State Warriors withstood a fast start by the Cleveland Cavaliers to post a 110-102 win and take a 3-0 NBA Finals lead. It had seemed like Stephen Curry was cruising toward his first Finals MVP--one of the few significant individual honors that Curry has not won--but now Durant has at least entered that discussion after shooting 15-23 from the field while grabbing a game-high tying 13 rebounds and dishing for seven assists. Durant shot 6-9 from three point range, including the 30-plus foot trey with less than 50 seconds remaining that gave the Warriors a 106-100 lead. Durant posted a game-high +15 plus/minus number and he has scored at least 25 points in each of his 13 career Finals games.

Remarkably, no other Warrior scored more than 11 points, though five Warriors reached double figures. Curry had a miserable shooting performance (3-16 from the field, including 1-10 from three point range just one game after setting a Finals single-game record with nine three pointers made), finishing with 11 points, six assists and five rebounds. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, JaVale McGee and Jordan Bell had 10 points each. McGee had a significant impact despite playing just 14 minutes; he shot 5-7 from the field and played a key role in Golden State's early third quarter run that transformed a 58-52 Cleveland halftime lead into a 69-64 Golden State lead. Bell shot 4-5 from the field and had six rebounds in 12 minutes off of the bench, while Green shot 4-8 from the field and snared nine rebounds. Thompson's numbers were pedestrian (4-11 field goal shooting, four rebounds) but he tied Andre Iguodala (eight points, two rebounds in 22 minutes in his 2018 Finals debut after missing the past six playoff games due to injury) with a +14 plus/minus number.

LeBron James had 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in what must be one of the emptiest triple doubles in NBA Finals history. As ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said late in the contest, "James has not been great tonight. He needs to be great in the last 4:45..He’s going to have to bring them home by living in the paint." Golden State led 94-93 at that point. During those final minutes as the curtain essentially fell on Cleveland's season, James scored five points but attempted just two shots in the paint. At the 3:21 mark, with Golden State clinging to a 96-95 advantage, James inexplicably fired up an errant three point attempt from well behind the arc, prompting Mark Jackson to state the obvious, "That’s a bad shot."

This is not about nitpicking the details of what superficially was a strong individual performance; the point is that there is a big difference between posting good numbers and having an impact on the outcome of the game. James has long had a paradoxical tendency to put up statistics that look great but--upon examination--did not have much impact. James also did much of his work early (he had nine of his assists and six of his rebounds in the first half) while fading down the stretch. His supporters will say that he became fatigued from the weight of carrying his team (he played 47 minutes), while his critics will say that this is yet another example of him not delivering with a Finals game on the line; the truth may be somewhere in between, but the reality--as I noted last year after Golden State took a 3-0 Finals lead over Cleveland en route to a 4-1 win--is that a player who it has become fashionable to call "the greatest of all-time" has one of the worst Finals winning percentages among the serious contenders for that title: for instance, Bill Russell went 11-1, Michael Jordan went 6-0, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went 6-4, Magic Johnson went 5-4, Larry Bird went 3-2 and Julius Erving went 3-3.

At the start, it looked like the Cavaliers might win at home and possibly turn this into a series instead of the coronation of a Warriors dynasty that is now poised to capture a third title in four seasons. The Cavaliers jumped out to a 16-4 lead by playing with great physicality and aggression (though, oddly, they did not attempt a single free throw during the first half). Durant kept the Warriors in touch by scoring 13 first quarter points on 4-4 field goal shooting and Golden State trimmed the margin to 29-28 by the end of the first stanza.

The Cavaliers rebuilt their lead to 45-35 in the second quarter but even at that point I wondered if the Cavaliers were committed to making this a competitive series or if they were just satisfied with not being blown out/not being swept. Cleveland led 58-52 at halftime, but it was apparent that Durant was in the midst of authoring a signature performance as he already had 24 points on 7-8 field goal shooting while the other Golden State starters had combined for just 13 points on 5-20 field goal shooting. For all of the talk about how poor James' supporting cast supposedly is, the Cavaliers led for most of game one and they led for most of game three as well; what the Cavaliers lack is the ability to finish, as demonstrated by their collapses at the conclusion of both of those contests. Those are the moments when a "greatest player of all-time" candidate should shine. The end of game one has been discussed ad infinitum and is not entirely James' fault--but he should have attacked the hoop instead of giving up the ball (which resulted in the fateful George Hill free throws) and he still had a chance to lead Cleveland to victory in overtime instead of succumbing to a double digit loss.

Kevin Love supported James with 20 points and a game-high tying 13 rebounds. He attacked the hoop strongly early in the game (15 points, 10 rebounds, 6-10 field goal shooting in the first half) but--like all of James' teammates over the years--he is dependent on getting the ball from the "pass first" James, who launched a game-high 28 field goal attempts (five more than Durant and 15 more than Love), including 1-6 shooting from three point range. I have always said that the best player should willingly shoulder the burden of taking the most shots, so I cannot criticize James too much for shooting that often--but it should be noted that the media typically lets James off of the hook for doing the same things that result in other great players being labeled as "selfish" gunners who supposedly do not "make their teammates better." Like all great players, James ideally should walk the fine line of leading the way in scoring while also keeping his teammates involved.

Yet, somehow, James is often not the best player on the court or the central figure in the action when the NBA Finals are decided. One could argue that his team is simply outgunned in this series but then how does one explain James losing to Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks in the 2011 Finals when James had two future Hall of Famers in their primes (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) while Nowitzki had Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler and the ghost of Jason Kidd (a future Hall of Famer to be sure, but one who was 38 years old at that time)?

If the Cavaliers had held serve at home in games three and four, then they would have just needed one road win in game five to put a lot of pressure on the Warriors. It is evident that Golden State has the better team but by the same token it is also evident that when the Cavaliers slow the game down, play physically and avoid turnovers they can more than hold their own.

Cleveland's halftime lead evaporated early in the third quarter. McGee scored six points in a 9-3 run as the Warriors tied the score. Curry then connected on a pair of free throws to put Golden State up 63-61, the Warriors' first lead of the game.

The margin remained close the rest of the way but Durant made most of the big plays down the stretch. As Van Gundy noted, in the closing moments the Warriors set "fake" screens for Durant and James willingly switched off of Durant, creating unnecessary mismatches. It is not clear why James did not accept the challenge of guarding Durant on those crucial possessions.

The Cavaliers are capable of winning game four to avoid the sweep but--barring significant injuries or some other unlikely occurrence--this series is over and the countdown for James' free agency decision has started; after inducing the Cavaliers to go deep into luxury tax territory without providing any assurance that he would stay (thus making it practically impossible to add another star to the roster), James may leave the team that he created to seek glory by joining forces with stars on another contender. After all, that is the route that Durant took (imitating what James did the first time that he left Cleveland) and Durant is about to win his second ring at James' expense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM


Monday, June 04, 2018

Stephen Curry Hits Finals Single-Game Record Nine Three Pointers as Warriors Rout Cavaliers, 122-103

Stephen Curry scored a game-high 33 points and set an NBA Finals single-game record by making nine three pointers as his Golden State Warriors turned what had been a relatively competitive game two into a 122-103 rout over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Curry shot just 11-26 from the field but he connected on 9-17 from three point range while also dishing for a team-high eight assists and grabbing seven rebounds. Curry poured in 16 fourth quarter points while shooting 5-5 from three point range and the Warriors used a 26-10 run over an eight minute stretch to bury the Cavaliers.

Kevin Durant, the 2017 NBA Finals MVP who has been performing below his usual level for the past several games, scored 26 points on 10-14 field goal shooting while also leading the Warriors in rebounding (nine) and passing for seven assists. Curry's amazing three point shooting provided both momentum sustaining substance and eye-popping style but Durant had the better plus/minus number (+24 compared to +19).

Klay Thompson, who injured his lower left leg in game one and was a game-time decision for game two, was noticeably gimpy at the start of the contest but he battled through the adversity and his leg seemed to loosen up as the game progressed. He contributed 20 points on 8-13 field goal shooting, plus his usual top notch defense.

Speaking of defense, defensive specialist Draymond Green scored just five points but he made his impact felt on the other end of the court while also grabbing eight rebounds and distributing seven assists.

JaVale McGee, who provided a boost during six minutes of game one action off of the bench, received the game two start at center for Golden State and he made an immediate impact at both ends of the court. The Warriors needed someone to protect the rim on defense and dive to the hoop on offense to counteract the big lineup that the Cavaliers have often used--and McGee answered the call with 12 points on 6-6 field goal shooting while also contesting/altering many shots in just 18 minutes.

LeBron James could not reasonably be expected to match his game one 51 point outburst but he finished with 29 points, a game-high 13 assists and nine rebounds. As ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said at halftime, though, James had great numbers but he was not playing great, at least by James' standard. James is the most paradoxical elite player I have ever seen. His numbers are almost always exceptional but sometimes it feels like he is not having the impact that those numbers would suggest. The plus/minus numbers from game two hint at this, as James had a team-worst -18 (tied with Kyle Korver, who scored one point in 17 minutes).

James has led his teams to nine NBA Finals, including eight straight, and his team has been the underdog several times, as is the case this year--but someone who is now often being called the greatest player of all-time should be more consistently the best player on the court when the games mean the most. James was clearly the best player on the court in game one but it could be argued that he was just the third best player in game three (behind Curry and Durant)--and that has often happened during James' Finals appearances, as a variety of players, several of whom are far less renowned, have outplayed James in individual games or even won the Finals MVP while being matched up with him directly.

Bottom line, I just don't get the comparisons with Michael Jordan--and this is not a "hot take" based on one game but rather a cool, logical analysis based on the body of work compiled by both players. How often during his six NBA Finals was Jordan not clearly the best player on the court? As I often write, this is not about numbers but about impact. Pundits are talking about James possibly surpassing Jordan in some hypothetical matchup but in the real world matchups that we can actually observe and analyze, Durant got the best of James in the 2017 Finals and Curry is getting the best of James this time around, at least in terms of making key plays in clutch situations. If the Warriors win this series, James' head to head Finals record against regular season MVPs from his era will be 1-2 against Tim Duncan, 0-1 against Dirk Nowitzki, 1-3 against Stephen Curry and 1-2 against Kevin Durant (James is 1-0 against Russell Westbrook, who won his MVP several years after facing James in the Finals). Jordan's resume does not contain such blemishes.

James is often credited with "making his teammates better" but, at most, that characterization applies to certain kinds of teammates: players who cannot create their own shots and are content to wait until James creates a shot for them tend to perform better when playing with James--but star players like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have to sublimate their games to James' ball dominance. When evaluating James' supporting cast, it is important to remember that he essentially hand-picked this roster, either by asking the Cavaliers to keep/get rid of specific players or by limiting the Cavaliers' options by refusing to commit to staying with the team beyond this season. James cannot both wield his immense power as a giant hammer hanging over the organization and then complain that he does not have enough help. 

Kevin Love scored 22 points and controlled a game-high 10 rebounds. The Cavaliers' strategy of going big and attacking the paint enabled them to keep the score close even as the Warriors unleashed a barrage of three pointers accompanied by rim attacks when the Cavaliers closed out overzealously to the three point line.

At one point, the 6-6 J.R. Smith was the shortest Cavalier on the court. Golden State led 90-83 with 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, so the game was up for grabs--and Curry grabbed it, as noted above. Meanwhile, James had four points and one assist during Golden State's 26-10 game-deciding run. We keep hearing that James' supporting cast is not doing enough but if the margin is seven points with 11 minutes to go then that should not be an insurmountable obstacle for the self-proclaimed "Chosen One"/"Best Player in the World."

LeBron James is one of the 10 greatest basketball players of all-time but the comparisons to Jordan are not apt and are ultimately a disservice to both players. Some say that is not fair to compare James' 3-5 Finals record to Jordan's 6-0 Finals record because James has carried supposedly inept squads to the Finals--but if we are going to accept that reasoning then we also need to throw out James' gaudy game seven career numbers, because Jordan was so dominant that he rarely needed a seventh game to eliminate his opponents.

The main question now is if the Cavaliers will get swept or if they will make this a competitive series by winning the next two games in Cleveland. James has led three comebacks from 0-2 deficits, including one against Golden State in the 2016 Finals. The patterns/habits of both teams strongly suggest that the Cavaliers will win at least one of the next two games; the Cavaliers are much better at home than on the road during this year's playoffs, while the Warriors have shown a tendency to become complacent and sloppy once they think that they have a series under control.

Specifically, the Cavaliers can win in Cleveland if they (1) play big lineups and slow down the pace so that they can dominate the paint at both ends of the court, (2) attack in transition only if they have a clear advantage and (3) tighten up their defensive coverages so that Golden State has to beat them by receiving major contributions from players other than Curry, Durant and Thompson. The keys for Golden State to sweep are (1) limit their turnovers, (2) create/exploit mismatches based on Cleveland's strategy of switching everything on the perimeter and (3) entice James to settle for long jumpers/passes to teammates as opposed to relentlessly attacking the hoop. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM